Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Experimental Cinema’ Category

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Agnès Varda To Receive Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Agnès Varda, here seen shooting The Gleaners and I, will be awarded an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes.

As Kinsey Lowe reports in the always-reliable online journal Deadline, “Agnès Varda will be honored for the body of her work at the closing ceremony of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She’s the first woman selected for this distinction. Only three other directors — Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci — have been recognized in this way for the global impact of their body of work.

From her first film, La Pointe Courte in 1954, Varda’s style reflected elements of what would become the French New Wave although because she preceded that movement her work is more Left Bank in style. Her next feature, Cleo From 5 To 7, was a documentary style look at a singer awaiting results of a biopsy, which foreshadowed Varda’s fascination with human mortality. Her films also tended to focus on women and her subsequent film Vagabond [1985] examined the investigation of the death of a female drifter.

She married film director Jacques Demy in 1962 and after his death in 1990, she made Jacquot de Nantes, about his life and death. In 2000, she used a digital camera to make The Gleaners and I [see still above]. Her 2008 autobiographical work Les plages d’Agnès picked up France’s the César for best documentary. A well-rounded and multifaceted artist, she started out as a photographer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled Agnes Varda in Californialand in 2013. The show was a sort of reflection of the time Varda spent in Los Angeles in the ’60s and included sculpture, photographs and short films.”

This is an honor that is more than overdue – congratulations to the foremother of the New Wave.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

Columbia University Seminar Presentation – 4/16/15

Monday, April 20th, 2015

I was honored to be invited to deliver a seminar lecture at Columbia University on April 16, 2015.

My talk was entitled “The Current Fate of Experimental Works on 16mm from the 1960s and 1970s in a Digital Age,” with David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University serving as the respondent.

The problem we discussed is a serious one – most of the experimental films of the 1960s and 1970s were created on 16mm reversal film, which is now an obsolete format, and many of the artists involved in the era have died, leaving their films as essentially “orphan works.” Even such well known artists as D.A. Pennebaker are searching for archives to take their 16mm original printing materials, and for most independent filmmakers of the 1960s, the films sit on the shelf, unseen and undistributed, where once they commanded a wide audience around the world at colleges, museums, and galleries.

As I noted during my lecture, in part, “with the rise of what is supposedly ’social media,’ a sense of community is gone. I think a better term for it is ‘anti-social’ media, because it locks us all away from each other in our own little cubicle. True, I can communicate with anyone in the world with a few keystrokes, but it’s impersonal, fragmentary, lacking in any real person to person substance.

Skype or Facetime are poor substitutes for actually sitting in a room and talking to a group of people. Vimeo [a premium video sharing site] is supposed to be a haven for artists, as well, but there’s little real interaction – by design – and many of the artists’ sites are ‘ghost sites,’ of videos posted years ago, and viewed only a few times.

Bookstores have vanished, not only in New York City, but around the world. And now, when one goes into a coffee house, instead of discussions, one finds a group of solitary people staring at their iPads or laptops, alone together in a virtual world where the only interaction takes place on the screen. Most people aren’t even aware of it, but our private space is essentially gone . . .

The experimental film work I have discussed in this paper, made for the most part in 16mm format, is also now beyond general use, as 16mm projection and production – to say nothing of 35mm – becomes a thing of the past.

Most of these works will become mere memories, existing only in terrible copies uploaded on the web if they exist at all. These films will never make the jump to DVD or streaming video, and unless one wants to go Anthology Film Archives, they’re almost impossible to see. Indeed, it’s as if they never even existed to an entire new generation of potential artists.”

A difficult problem, for which there is no easy solution; well worth talking about.

The Films of Jim Krell at Anthology – At Last!

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

A sold out audience for the films of Jim Krell at Anthology Film Archives – 4/17/2015.

At last, in their first projection since a screening at the Rutgers University in 1982, six of Jim Krell’s films were shown to a large, receptive, and deeply enthusiastic audience at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archive on April 17, 2015. Krell’s films are such utterly original works that the chance to see them should simply not be overlooked, not least because they were created in 16mm, and were screened in that format, something that is increasingly rare in the 21st century.

I curated the screening, in addition to presenting an introductory lecture offering an overview of Krell’s work, as someone who witnessed the creation of many of the films included in the program. Sadly, the prints of some of Krell’s earliest films, such as Paper Palsy and Shoreline of China, seem to have been lost in the thirty or so years since their last projection.

The originals for these early films, however, are happily all in Anthology’s collection of Krell’s materials; perhaps, someday, they will be printed up again. Nevertheless, what we saw was astounding, and demonstrates conclusively that a major retrospective of Krell’s work is long, long overdue.

One of the most original and iconoclastic figures of the New American Cinema, Jim Krell created work that is simultaneously so important, and yet so unknown, that this screening constitutes a major event, closing a significant gap in experimental film history. Starting in the early 1970s, Krell created a series of mysterious and rigorous films that defy written description, visionary works that conjure up an entirely different vision of the physical universe.

During that time, I had the opportunity to watch him at work on several occasions. What always impressed me (or perhaps ‘astonished’ is a better word) concerning Krell’s shooting methods was the intrinsic speed and seemingly random technique he brought to his work, creating films with offhand precision that both challenged and engaged the viewer.

Now living in Italy, Krell has long since moved on to other pursuits, but during the white hot period in which he turned out one amazing film after another in a veritable torrent of work, Krell created a singular vision that is all the more impressive because each of his films is entirely different from any other of his works; he never does the same thing twice. So the chance to see, and save, his work, is something that isn’t to be taken lightly.

Thanks to all at Anthology, including Jed Rapfogel, Andrew Lampert, Sarah Halpern, and the superb projectionists who really brought Jim’s films to life on this memorable night; I really do hope this will be the first of many more screenings of his work. You can read more about Krell’s work in my book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.

Jim Krell is a genuine American original, in every sense of the word.

Manoel de Oliveira – Greatest Living Filmmaker – Dies at 106

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira shooting his film The Magic Mirror in 2005.

Since we’re all mortal, it had to happen, and now it has; Manoel de Oliveira, to my mind the greatest living filmmaker – without question – has finally died at age 106. His second to last feature film, Gebo and the Shadow, was an austere masterpiece, and he adapted readily to digital cinema, but remained a master of the quiet, patiently constructed image, creating films that always ended with an unexpected twist, but on a metaphorical level rather than being a mere plot shift.

Not that Oliveira was without humor – far from it – as evidenced in this great clip in which he does a Chaplin imitation for filmmaker Agnes Varda. And of course, the Tweets are piling in – as well they should. Since he picked up the pace of production in his late 80s, Oliveira has emerged as the most innovative, deeply moral, and absolutely humanist filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century. There’s really no one else like him – before, or now, after his death.

As Ali Jaafar perceptively writes in Deadline, “Manoel De Oliveira, the Portugese filmmaker who for so many years appeared to defy the laws of gravity and physics, has died at the age of 106. He was, by some measure, the world’s oldest active filmmaker, working up until last year when his latest — and last — film, The Old Man Of Belem premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Born in 1908, De Oliveira’s productivity — he directed 29 films in all — is all the more remarkable given he had only made two films by the time he was 55. The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy. In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter.

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. He might not even be finished just yet: He is reputed to have insisted that one of his films, Memories And Confessions, not be shown publicly while he was alive.

De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugul’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age.

In time De Oliveira moved from the neorealist verité style that categorized his early work — his debut feature was Aniki-Bobo in 1942 about the slums of his hometown Porto — eventually gave way to a more formal, literary approach often dealing with themes of unrequited and unfulfilled love. He often adapted literary works, including four books by Agustina Bessa-Luis.

He worked with many fine actors, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and also Marcello Mastroianni in the iconic Italian actor’s final role in Voyage To The Beginning Of The World.” His other standout films include Acto de Primavera, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Convent, A Talking Picture, and numerous other works – Oliveira was one of a kind, and his films – as well as his life – serve as an inspiration to all who love and cherish the cinema.

As Cahiers du Cinema said of Oliveira’s work, “He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.” I try to avoid obits in this blog, but this is just too major a passing to omit – our greatest living filmmaker is now gone.

All day long, I have had the feeling something was terribly wrong – now I know why.

Artist Run Film Labs – A New Phenomenon

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

In the digital era, as the number of film labs decline, real artists are taking the lead.

As Genevieve Yue writes in the March 30, 2015 online issue of Film Comment, “there are roughly 65 film labs left in the world, of which around 20 are in North America. These ranks, along with the number of film stocks being manufactured, dwindled as digital technologies have saturated the realm of production and studios have moved away from film. When it comes to labs that process 16mm film—a mainstay of experimental film—and small-gauge stocks, only a few commercial options exist, mostly in the United States: Cinelab, in Boston; ColorLab in Maryland; Deluxe in New York City; Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas; and Fotokem in Burbank. One of the most recent casualties of this technological shift has been Pac Lab, which closed in New York, screening its unclaimed films at Anthology Film Archives.

The decline in commercial film production, however, has been countered by a rebirth in the phenomenon of artist-run film laboratories. What in the early Nineties was limited to a handful of cooperatively owned, independent labs, mostly in France, has grown into an international network of over 30, many of them formed within the last several years. The decline of film processing created a surplus of cheap, unwanted equipment that, in the right hands, could be repurposed for the smaller-scale operation of an artist-run lab. Saved from the scrap heap, many discarded contact printers and processing tanks have begun a second life as artists’ tools.

For many, this historical juncture between film and digital media has been cause for lament. But among those in the growing artist-run film lab community, the view is considerably more sanguine. Many are younger filmmakers drawn to the creative possibilities of hand-processing in workshops at places like Mono No Aware, in Brooklyn, or Big Mama’s Cinematheque in Philadelphia. For these artists, film offers a range of textures and expressive possibilities not available in digital formats. Others are drawn to the ‘home-brew’ DIY spirit that celebrates the autonomy of artist-run labs. Josh Lewis, who in 2012 founded the Negativland lab in Ridgewood, Queens, describes it as ‘a more involved way of being a filmmaker. You can’t rely on an industry that serves Hollywood. You need to be a technician and a filmmaker.’

For filmmakers like Lewis, the current moment offers the opportunity to sever cinema from its industrial tether. In many ways, this is the culmination of the avant-garde dream to become fully independent. Experimental film, at least at the level of materials, has been invariably tied to the commercial conditions of the film industry at large, though its output may have more in common, aesthetically and culturally, with the types of objects that circulate in the art world. Now, in response to a collapsing apparatus for the production of film, avant-garde filmmakers are developing the means and momentum to adapt and design their own methods of making films.”

This is a fascinating development – you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Stan VanDerBeek Finally Gets A Book!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Gloria Sutton’s book finally gives us a comprehensive look at the work of this pioneering, visionary artist.

As the notes for book state, “in 1965, the experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984) unveiled his Movie-Drome, made from the repurposed top of a grain silo. VanDerBeek envisioned Movie-Drome as the prototype for a communications system — a global network of Movie-Dromes linked to orbiting satellites that would store and transmit images. With networked two-way communication, Movie-Dromes were meant to ameliorate technology’s alienating impulse.

In The Experience Machine, Gloria Sutton views VanDerBeek — known mostly for his experimental animated films — as a visual artist committed to the radical aesthetic sensibilities he developed during his studies at Black Mountain College. She argues that VanDerBeek’s collaborative multimedia projects of the 1960s and 1970s (sometimes characterized as ‘Expanded Cinema’), with their emphases on transparency of process and audience engagement, anticipate contemporary art’s new media, installation, and participatory practices.

VanDerBeek saw Movie-Drome not as pure cinema but as a communication tool, an ‘experience machine.’ In her close reading of the work, Sutton argues that Movie-Drome can be understood as a programmable interface. She describes the immersive experience of Movie-Drome, which emphasized multi-sensory experience over the visual; display strategies deployed in the work; the Poemfield computer-generated short films; and VanDerBeek’s interest, unique for the time, in telecommunications and computer processing as a future model for art production. Sutton argues that visual art as a direct form of communication is a feedback mechanism, which turns on a set of relations, not a technology.”

Essential reading – VanDerBeek is one of a kind, and an absolutely integral part of cinema history.

Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Here’s Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow in the journal Cinemascope.

As Ferreira notes, in part, “Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an aged, decent and broke family man subdued by routine and a sense of duty who has learned from life that ‘when money’s involved, no one ever forgives.’ He lives with his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), a woman who does not accept reality, pushing upon Gebo and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira) an endless pack of lies about their missing son, João (Ricardo Trêpa, speaking in a disarming French accent that draws attention to his character’s dubious nature). Gebo often receives his faithful neighbors Chamiço and Candidinha (Luís Miguel Cintra and Jeanne Moreau): their favorite sport is complaining, which nicely complements Gebo’s perpetual sense of hopelessness. A man without ambition, Gebo often laments: ‘The question is whether we come to this world to be happy.’ In fact, happiness here is a temptation and a sordid object in the house: a bag full of money collected from the company where Gebo works.

The shadow of the title, on the other hand, seems to be a far more complex issue. Because first of all in the film, brilliantly shot by Renato Berta in HD on a studio set, faint oil lamps are always flickering, and there is no distinction between day and night. This is a perennially dark world where there is almost no light to reflect any shadows at all: we could dare to say that colors and image here have a pictorial sense and a distinctive purpose . . . the shadow [of the title] is a suffocating thought, commenting on the Portuguese soul and despair from the perspective of the myth of Sebastianism, a topic addressed by Oliveira in both No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990) and The Fifth Empire (2004). For a director who once said that the truth and the event are the two greatest vectors of his work, this historical approach is not an abuse of our imagination: ‘Today is a product of yesterday,’ as Oliveira once said.”

To which Gwendolyn Audrey Foster adds, “Oliveira is like a time traveler who takes us back to another century, illuminated by candles and philosophy . . . he’s the only truly significant classical artist left in the cinema,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Oliveira is now 106 years old – his birthday is December 11th, 1908 – and I keep hearing reports that his health is now, perhaps inevitably, precarious, though he has just completed two short films, and I sincerely hope that he will make more features.

After laboring in near-obscurity for decades, Oliveira really began to burst forth on the international scene in his eighties, and has in the last yen years developed a very late classical style which is at once restrained and deeply penetrating; as I’ve said before, he makes viewers work for their pleasures in his films, but in the end, the cumulative effect is staggering. Oliveira truly is the last great classical filmmaker, in the tradition of Renoir, Bresson, and others, and yet his works are still little known, and Gebo and the Shadow, to date, has only a European Region 2 DVD release – but with English subtitles, so there’s no excuse for not getting a copy now. Having recently suffered through the trivialities of the Academy Awards – and every year, though I’m asked to comment, this year vowing never to do so again – seeing something of this quality restores my faith in the cinema, and in art, though no one- absolutely no one – is now working in the cinema at the same level as Oliveira. I urge you to see this film at once.

You can read Ferreira’s excellent article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Accidental Surrealism in 1940s Advertising

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Salvador Dalí, eat your heart out!

No real comment here, other than the fact that this 1940s ad for nail polish is a real mind-blower; accidental surrealism at its most bizarre. As Dalí famously noted, “surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” Actually, this reminds me a great deal of Dalí’s nightmare dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), but that was designed to be surreal and disturbing.

This is a just a commercial image designed to sell a product – I wonder how successful it was? In any event, it’s given us something much more valuable some seventy years later; a vision of the past, with an unsettling link to the present. This image was created to be consumed and then abandoned, but has been archived on the web. How many more images, films, texts, drawings, paintings, advertisements will offer us the same disquieting glimpse into our consumerist past?

Sometimes the most interesting work is produced through sheer accident.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • Frame by Frame: Science Fiction Futurism
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the 2015 Ridley Scott film "The Martian," and the accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of science-fiction films at predicting real advancements in science and technology. […]
  • Frame by Frame: Batman v Superman
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the genre of comic book movies in the context of "Batman v Superman."  […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website